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Are medical errors the third leading cause of death? New study says yes.

A new study published Johns Hopkins Medicine recently found that medical errors contribute to so many fatalities in the United States that it should rank as the third-leading cause of death in the country. The researchers said the problem is being kept from the public, partially due to how deaths are reported and tracked.

The authors of the study are urging the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to add medical errors to the list of top causes of death. They are also requesting changes to death certificates to help keep track of fatal medical mistakes.

Just how many fatalities are happening due to medical errors? The study found that more than 250,000 patients in the U.S. die every year because of medical mistakes. The number of deaths each year puts medical errors as the third leading cause of death for Americans, behind heart disease and cancer.

Medical errors can cause serious complications that lead to death. The researchers reported that the following mistakes can all contribute to a patient's preventable death:

  • Undiagnosed or misdiagnosed surgical complications
  • Medication mistakes, including wrong dose or type of medication
  • Diagnostic errors
  • Poor judgment
  • Communication mistakes between staff

The CDC does not track all mistakes, making it difficult to truly know how many deaths are caused by medical errors every year. The CDC only tracks the "underlying cause of death," which means a patient who has heart disease but dies from a medical mistake would have their death attributed to heart disease because that was their underlying condition listed on their death certificate.

This is a serious issue because it does not portray an accurate picture of the cause of death for many patients. The researchers are calling for death certificates to include an additional question asking if "a preventable complication of car contributed" to the patient's death.

The chief of the mortality statistics branch for the CDC disagreed with the researchers, saying current reporting guidelines capture complications from medical care on death certificates. It is difficult for doctors to report a patient fatality due to a medical mistake, and the CDC said a better strategy is to help doctors become more comfortable with reporting errors in the first place to increase patient safety.

Improving patient safety is everyone's goal. The researchers and many patient safety groups want accurate statistics made available to the public so patients and their families are better informed of the risks associated with their health care. Only time will tell if the CDC and other organizations will change the way they report medical mistakes to the public and how they list fatal medical errors on death certificates.

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